How to function optimally in Japanese work environment

Perhaps no amount of research could fully prepare you for the realities of working for a Japanese company, but having learned the hard way that it’s no cakewalk, I would like to offer to newcomers, or even veterans who need a supportive reminder, my advice on how to function optimally in the unique Japanese work life… with some helpful song titles.

1. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”

In Japanese culture, true feelings are generally not shown in public. If you’re at work, make sure you’re showing your most “genki” face at all times. While bonding with co-workers through mutual dissatisfaction may be acceptable in Western countries (ie. “our boss/students are so demanding!”) in Japan, complaining is frowned on, as it is seen to bring others down. Even making helpful, proactive suggestions- “why don’t we try it this way?”- may be seen as a challenge to the prescribed method, which was originally made for a clear, effective purpose (maybe?)

If there truly is a real problem, there’s a good chance that it might not be handled directly. Conflict is avoided and it can be very hard to get a straight answer from someone. Forthrightness is not valued in the same way here that it is in the West. If you feel confused about what’s going on, just remember that’s normal. 

2. “All Apologies”

What else should I be? The most helpful answer is: apologetic. It doesn’t matter if the mistake was not yours, or if it was impossible for you to have known in advance (for example, being blamed for forgetting to submit a form that you were never told about in the first place)- be sure to apologize. “I’m sorry,” is always better than making an excuse or trying to shift the blame. You can find out later what happened and try to remedy it retroactively, but denying that it’s your fault will only lead to more problems.

3. “Down With the Sickness”

Getting sick in the West is something inevitable that can’t be helped and generates sympathy from others. In Japan, getting sick means you haven’t taken care of yourself well enough. It is not customary for Japanese people to take a sick day unless they might actually be dying. Of course, that’s an exaggeration, but don’t expect to get out of work with a bad cold, no matter how much you’re suffering. Put on a mask, pop some pills, and carry on.

That being said, if you have a fever, you should probably stay home, but be aware that your employer will want to know that you’ve been to see a doctor and gotten a prescription. This may seem a little intrusive, but it will make everyone feel more at ease that you’ve been taken care of.

4. “Hard Day’s Night”

Work overtime. Just do it. Everyone else does. Sound like classic peer pressure? I can’t argue that it’s not. However, staying late can make your day more relaxed because the work is spread out over a longer time period. It can also give you some extra time to bond with co-workers.

Working long hours is incredibly common in Japan. Of course, no one expects you to work yourself to death (they have a term for that here actually- karōshi). Set limits for yourself and stick to them- it can be anything from not staying more than a certain amount of time, to making sure you catch the last train home. You will feel less stressed if you sort a schedule out early on.

5. “Taking Care of Business”

A few more items on the agenda:

- Japanese work culture is all about appearance. Being well-groomed is a good starting point and easy enough to pull off. First impressions are incredibly important in Japanese business, so looking sharp from the start is a must.

- “15 minutes early is on time in Japan.” Maybe you’ve heard this somewhere else; it’s completely true. The Japanese place a great deal of emphasis on punctuality. Even if your train broke down, it’s still your fault for being late because this is seen as not planning ahead.

- You’re expected to always keep in mind what’s best for the company, because this is supposedly what’s good for everyone in the long term. Even if you don’t plan to stay more than a year or two, you should still act as if you’ll be with them until you retire.

If I’ve made it sound like the Japanese work environment is challenging, well… it’s not all bad news. Keep in mind a few things:

a) As long as you look like you’re doing what you’re supposed to, you are mostly trusted and left on your own to complete your tasks. For those who loathe micromanagement, this can be valuable, just be sure to check periodically that what you’re doing is actually OK, so as to prevent future problems.

b) You will surely go out drinking with your colleagues- it’s completely acceptable to make a complete drunken idiot of yourself and show up to work the next day pretending it didn’t happen. This can be a good way to bond and relieve stress (I recommend onsen as well).

And don’t forget,

c) This isn’t your culture. Even if you exhaust yourself trying you will never get it quite perfect. And that’s OK. And in your free time you can do as you like.

Author Infomation

Nicole Sauer
Nicole Sauer
Nicole Sauer is a traveler, teaching to pay the bills and because she enjoys it. She loves discovering and taking photos of hilarious English fails on public signage ("Please use a toilet finely!") and currently lives in Nagoya.
  • 4

    Elvensilvan

    As long as you look like you’re doing what you’re supposed to, you are mostly trusted and left on your own to complete your tasks.

    This is what I like best in the article.

  • 4

    ChibaChick

    And in your free time you can do as you like.

    Free time??! Free time?! Bwah ha ha ha!

    Yes, all this is indeed excellent advice. But what a life.

    1) Grin and bear it no matter what. 2) Aplogise for your very existence. 3) Drag yourself in even if you feel like death warmed up. Or prove to your boss that you REALLY are sick (he doesnt give a crap about you, he just wants to see proof you are genuinely ill) 4) Sell your soul. Or at the very least your family time. 5) Appearances are everything. Doesnt matter how good you are at what you do, as long as you look sharp and look like you are doing what you are supposed to. And just when you think you are done for the day - drinking is mandatory.

    OK, so maybe I exaggerate slightly with some of the above, but seriously - is this the way to run an economy? A business? A life?

    But then, what do I know. I really have no idea what Im talking about because "its not my culture".

  • 8

    SimondB

    Or in other words become a mindless zombie.

  • 10

    Kundong

    These are among 5 of the excellent reasons why my advice to every young Japanese person would be to learn a second language and leave the country.

  • 1

    m6bob

    During my short training attachment to the company's Kawasaki office I was not served tea by the designated OL. Did I have to apologize for making her serve one more person?

  • 4

    LiveInTokyo

    This isn’t your culture. Even if you exhaust yourself trying you will never get it quite perfect.

    If you said something like this in Australia, the UK or the US people would say you would be branded a rascist. In most other "advanced" countries were told to be accommodating and respect the differences between cultures and customs of the people that come from other countries that live in our societies. But in Japan, "(It) isnt your culture" ... so make sure you do what the Japanese do. The message is clear, if you live in Japan you must only respect Japanese culture. Wonder what Japanese people would think if I gave them the same message back home?

  • 4

    BertieWooster

    Probably the best way to deal with working in a Japanese company is to follow the advice give above TO THE LETTER, make all the contacts and get all the information you will need and then resign from the company and start your own business.

    It's easier if you are married to a Japanese person who can do the necessary paper work.

    You will work twice as hard, but you can take a break whenever you want and don't have to put up with inept ideas, bosses who don't have a clue and who wouldn't survive a day in the "real world," useless "traditions" and infighting.

    It worked for me.

  • 4

    Mocheake

    Don't come up with any new ideas, ways of doing something more efficiently or multitask. "It does not compute. It does not compute."

  • -1

    crustpunker

    You're expected to always keep in mind what's best for the company, because this is supposedly what's good for everyone in the long term. Even if you don't plan to stay more than a year or two, you should still act as if you'll be with them until you retire.

    Human beings have historically expressed the rational interest to suffer in the present in order to gain (or hope to gain) in the future. Altruism, which has undergone extensive philosophical debate, might very well be rooted in forms of "pleasure" obtained by the selfless (painful) acts for the benefit of others. The pain/pleasure premise put forward by such arguments, reinforced by an impulsive reaction for gain, has become a socially rewarded pattern. This has generated a mentality where short term gain is sought after often at the true expense of long term suffering.

    Working long hours is incredibly common in Japan. Of course, no one expects you to work yourself to death (they have a term for that here actually- karoshi). Set limits for yourself and stick to them- it can be anything from not staying more than a certain amount of time, to making sure you catch the last train home. You will feel less stressed if you sort a schedule out early on.**

    Today, the only real Value Theory in place is what could be called the "Money Sequence of Value".Money has taken on a life of its own with respect to the reinforced psychology moving it. It has no direct purpose in intent but to work to manifest more money out of less money (investment). This "money seeking money" phenomenon has not only created a value system disorder where this interest in monetary gain trumps everything, leaving truly relevant environmental and public health issues secondary and "external" to the focus of economy, its constant propensity to "multiply" and "expand" truly has a cancerous quality where this idea of needed "growth", rather than steady-state balance, continues its pathological effect on many levels.

  • 6

    papasmurfinjapan

    Or in other words become a mindless zombie.

    My thoughts exactly. : )

    Do what you're told, nothing more, nothing less, and you'll have few problems in a Japanese company.

    Once you start thinking for yourself, then it starts to become unbearable.

  • 7

    tranel

    Directive A1 for Japanese office clones: CONFORM. Never, ever depart from established procedures even if it would mean a higher-quality product or radically improved efficiency (and hence profitability for the company). Following procedure is much more important than trying to reach results in the most effective manner possible. If you follow procedure, but something goes wrong you'll be scolded but the fracas can be explained by "inexperience" or something similar - in rare cases, the influence of external factors may even be recognized. If you try your own way (ie try to work smarter) and something goes wrong, you will be perceived as reckless and a danger to the company.

    Also remember:

    In Japan, there is ONE correct way (or "shikata") of doing everything. All other ways are wrong.

    In Japan, there is ONE worldview only - the Japanese one.

    In Japan, regardless of the fact that a day has a finite amount of hours, and each task you're given to do uses up a specific portion of that time, if you only gambaru you can do it. You DO NOT say "I can't fit it in" - you gambaru. Nobody ever asks you whether you can squeeze something in - a Japanese person will say "yes, of course, sure" to the client first, then expect you to ganbaru to meet the deadline. This generally leads to the worst project/time management imaginable.

    In Japan, your boss is waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay more important than your child.

    In Japan, your client is your boss' boss. The client rules your universe.

    In Japan, there are no small or even insignificant mistakes. There are only mistakes, and mistakes are unforgivable. Anything less than perfect is unacceptable - and the way to reach perfection is to perfectly follow established procedure.

    In Japan, things that you actually can influence are perceived as unchangeable, set in stone by God. Expect to hear "sho ga nai" a lot.

    Incidentally, all of the above are reasons why Japan is stuck in the doldrums. Japanese companies like to complain about the high yen, but never once consider their own working cultures to be reasons for poor sales and weakened public images. Perhaps one day somebody will understand and shout Eureka, but I doubt it very much.

  • 2

    marcelito

    Slipping into a semi permanent vegetative state will see you fit into a J-company just swell.

  • 0

    Nessie

    Pretty good stuff for one of these guest pieces, and well written. Thanks, Ms. Sauer.

    A few notes.

    In Japan, getting sick means you haven’t taken care of yourself well enough. It is not customary for Japanese people to take a sick day unless they might actually be dying.

    Did you miss the paradox: Make sure you take care of yourself. But for the love of all that's sacred DO NOT take care of yourself.

    Easier just to learn the f-word, the one word that's a one-way ticket home: fever. You could be ejecting bodily fluids from every orifice without much sympathy, but just drop the f-word and it's no questions asked.

  • 7

    Reckless

    I actually work at a traditional JP company and make more than most except a few senior guys. The advice above is not for Westerners, maybe those from other Asian countries who are expected to conform. Here is the real deal: 1. you are gaijin and that ain't gonna change, so within reason act as you would in your own country. It will keep you sane. 2. Contract says 9-5? Then come in 855 and leave 505. Leave the facetime to the locals. 3. I never apologize unless I truly screwed up. Apologizing is a sign of weakness and beta attitude. Bow your head like a nod, that is enough. 4. Don't gossip. No matter which JP person you are talking to, they love to spread what they know about you. Keep your private life private. 5. Never complain or criticize Japan. This is the most important rule. Even if you hate your job, if you can say a good thing like "I really like working here" and "I am trying to understand Japanese" you will have absolutely no problem from management. Sorry, but this is reality.

    Good luck.

  • 2

    combinibento

    How do function in a Japanese work environment, eh? Anyone else find it ironic that one of the songs chosen for the headings was written by a guy who killed himself?

  • 0

    Tessa

    Don't gossip. No matter which JP person you are talking to, they love to spread what they know about you. Keep your private life private.

    This, this, this! I wish I'd known this in my early days here. Generally speaking, westerners gossip about themselves, and most of us aren't listening anyway so it hardly matters. Japanese gossip about other people, and they especially love to gossip about foreign (western) co-workers, because it makes them feel special. Don't ever, ever, ever reveal a confidence to a Japanese person that you don't want the whole office to know about before sundown. I learned this the hard way. Hope you don't have to.

  • 0

    Serrano

    "overtime... can also give you some extra time to bond with co-workers"

    LOL.

  • 0

    GW

    Thanks to the author for reminding me why I was SO HAPPY when I struck out on my own, no way in hell I'd work for a J-company now! Sure I work with, but not for, HUGE difference!

    And the inability to adapt to modern times is really driving Japan into the ground.

    I'd rather be homeless living under a bridge than be a typical salaryman, what a deadbeat existence it is for most, no thanks!

  • 1

    gonemad

    While bonding with co-workers through mutual dissatisfaction may be acceptable in Western countries (ie. “our boss/students are so demanding!”) in Japan, complaining is frowned on, as it is seen to bring others down. Even making helpful, proactive suggestions- “why don’t we try it this way?”- may be seen as a challenge to the prescribed method, which was originally made for a clear, effective purpose

    I'd like to differentiate a bit here. When you deal with people you don't know well, do as written above. But with your immediate colleagues and superiors, you should remain true to yourself. They know you are different. They expect you to be different. Otherwise they would have hired a Japanese person to do the job. Just give them some time to get used and to establish trust.

    When it comes to challenging existing rules or procedures, you may be able to find a way to make it look like your customer's requirement. Watch them change it like a whirlwind. Of course, when it is company-internal only, don't work yourself into the ground by fighting windmills. There are other people who can do that better. Well, and if you think the company is full of idiots, then, why the heck are you working there...?

    Last but not least, a word of caution. Let's not forget that many things look strange/ridiculous/stupid when you don't understand the background. That is not limited to foreigners coming to Japan but you can see that everywhere around you, whether it is different companies, different departments, your bosses, your wife, whatever. There are very few people out there who are real idiots. People do have good (!) reasons for their behavior. How often have I seen foreigners who just arrived here complaining that "everybody out there" does something in a different way and so should the Japanese. Look into the mirror. What you have said is just another version of the "we have always done it like this, why should we change". The "everybody out there" usually turns out to be nothing more than their home country. It's even more hilarious when you hear this from people who stress their own individuality at any given opportunity. It doesn't mean you shouldn't fight for change where it is appropriate, but don't make an arrogant fool of yourself before you really understand the reasoning of your counterpart.

  • 1

    Thunderbird2

    I've seen what masses of overtime does to a normally healthy woman: it makes her constantly tired, stressed out, induces a skin condition due to stress... and has her talking about what she'll come back as in her next life. I think what I find hardest to understand is that she is fine with it... at least that what she tells me.

    As much as I love Japan (as a regular visitor) in a way I'm glad I can't get a work visa. I think I would become a wreck within about a month. I love my 37.5 hours per week.

  • 0

    Fadamor

    netsu ga iru. taihen desu ne. Jaa, Ima kaette mo ii desuka?

    It's my understanding that Japan is run on "concensus" - meaning individual ideas are never acted upon unless/until a committee reviews it and approves it. As such, expecting approval of your idea is folly because the mere act of convening the committee is wasteful of the committee's time.

  • 1

    Thomas Proskow

    I think that while RESPECTING certain kinds of protocol are mandatory, some of these don't actually fix problems within a company and just preserve what's WRONG with the workplace.

    Cultures be damned, use common sense.

    Working overtime is ok, to a limit. However, if it's completely within your contract, and you've got nothing to do, there's no reason whatsoever to do unpaid overtime.

    This is not our culture, but I think the important thing about living overseas is to only adopt the positive(beneficial, self-improving) aspects of a foreign culture, but drawing a firm solid line when it comes to the negatives (anti-individualism, sacrifice of your family and well-being for the company, not handling problems directly, etc.)

    I think the best way is to know and stick to your own beliefs and finding out how THOSE can benefit a company rather than destroying yourself in the name of blind conformity. Companies in Japan obviously don't hire foreigners just so they can pretend to be Japanese, they hire foreigners to see what they can learn from them.

    Life is a journey of learning and self-improvement. Only adopt what benefits you.

  • 1

    budgie

    All these tips for 'fitting in' might be worth it if you're working at Daiwa Securities and getting a fat Japanese salary package. But if you're like most foreigners and struggling on a crappy Eikaiwa wage, bugger it, just be yourself. There are no career benefits to doing it their way.

  • 1

    Thomas Proskow

    Exactly..... I think the POSITIVE of being a foreigner with a foreigner's attitude about things is that we're here and doing it for US.

    Many Japanese are raised with more of an attitude that their life goal is to be part of a company and sacrifice their individuality for the good of their company. Many decide their life identity based on their occupation.

    When we first came to Japan, how many of us decided since after high school our entire life's purpose was to go to Japan and be a native English teacher/mascot at some language school the rest of our lives? That we're a Native English teacher and nothing more? Thought not.

  • 2

    japan_cynic

    Do it your way, the locals won't do anything for your career so you'd better look out for yourself and make your life as bearable as possible while you are here.

  • -1

    Francis Urquhart

    This, this, this! I wish I'd known this in my early days here. Generally speaking, westerners gossip about themselves, and most of us aren't listening anyway so it hardly matters. Japanese gossip about other people, and they especially love to gossip about foreign (western) co-workers, because it makes them feel special. Don't ever, ever, ever reveal a confidence to a Japanese person that you don't want the whole office to know about before sundown. I learned this the hard way. Hope you don't have to.

    Japanese people often act as go-betweens for each other. The very fact that you are sharing a confidence, or rather a 'confidence' could be a signal to a Japanese person that you want him or her to act on your behalf and resolve a difficult situation behind the scenes. As stated in the article, Japanese society is non-confrontational. So your situation may have been a misread sign. I do agree though - keep your private life private.

  • 0

    Serrano

    "It doesn't matter if the mistake was not yours ... be sure to apologize"

    What! And lose all my self respect? I'm sorry, ha ha!

  • 0

    bokuwamo

    There must be a place in the world where people experiencing difficulties in a Japanese work environment would rather be. Where all the problems of living and working in Japan are not encountered.

    Having lived and worked in many different places Any time I thought the place I was at, was not good for me and I was able, I moved on.

  • 0

    Patrick Smith

    Back when I was a JET, I felt kind of bad for the teachers spending their entire lives at school, but in a way it's almost admirable because you can kind of justify they are working for the kids- for a good cause. (I know some are just putting in facetime for their careers, but still).

    Being in a Japanese company back in the US I just feel completely sad for these guys. Never speak up, never question any request from Japan no matter how ridiculous. The guys are at work from probably 7:30 until 8 or 9pm every day. They have absolutely zero lives outside their small Japanese group at the office and barely see their families.

    If I was going to do the whole salaryman thing I'd need to have some sort of valid purpose to my profession- education, NPO, something that actually does good in the world. Then I could justify the work.

  • 0

    Falken Newton

    Working at the moment (not for much longer) in a house of horrors! You may have heard of these places that will screw with your contract, who will make sure you are working ten or eleven hours a day, who will give you one day off a week, and maybe a two day holiday once a month... IF YOU ARE LUCKY! Yeah, I hate the time... but I love the work! I have no real problem with working hard... its the politics of the working environment.

    First, I found it is best to be friendly with people, but not to really make friends with them. This may be different where you work, but at least in this hardcore office it is a BAD IDEA! Gossip and digging for secrets is a pass-time in the Japanese Office environment. If you ever make a bad move, don`t be shocked if people start bringing up some strange things you thought no one ever would.

    Second, be prepared to throw on a fake smile all day, even when you are feeling like that little slice of gum on the street that is run over hundreds of times a day. Never show you are sad, upset, down, or anything but feeling good.

    Third, and this is the most important! Research where you want to work BEFORE you sign a contract!!! Not all work is as... (Im going to use the word bad, because really even for Japanese my work environment is BAD) ...bad as mine, but you will see a lot of stressful things ~ Try to set yourself up with a slow, easygoing office if you can. The shock of being thrown in to Vaders boot-camp can be a a life changer,. I have seen it throw three people in under six months back home and depressed.

    Finally, read! Not just this post and its comments... but read a bunch of sites! Is this something you are ready for? Is this something you want? I am not trying to scare you off... far from it! I love working here, but I see so much people that can not hack it, and break-down.

    So, smile, be friendly (not a friend), research so you don`t get a crazy office, and read read read!

    ThanxXx for reading my odd, long, and maybe negative comment... cheers, and best of luck to you! Falken

  • 0

    Mike45

    I disagree with several parts of this article.

    1. "in Japan, complaining is frowned on, as it is seen to bring others down."

    This is true when a foriegner complains about anything Japan. This is a big no no. However, Japanese do complain, and are quite good at it, they just do it during mandatory smoke breaks. If the boss is a foriegner, then they take it to another level. They never complain directly, unless its a foriegner coworker and feel the need to vent, then the will let it all out. If there is a meeting and somebody ask if there are any complaints, Japanese will not say anything, but will whine in the same pitch during smoke break about all thats wrong with the company. My advice to a foriegner working in Japan: never say bad things about Japan or its culture to anybody at work, even if they ask you your feelings about it, most Japanese are ultrasensitive about it.

    1. "In Japan, getting sick means you haven’t taken care of yourself well enough."

    There is some truth to this, thus explaining the mask phenomenon, but there is an exception: mental stress. I have seen Japanese take weeks or months of mental leave while receiving pay for various reasons that would be unacceptable in other countries. This is one catagory that is acceptable in Japan...for Japanese.

    Other parts of the article are spot on. Drinking with collegues is not always a requirment, however, depends on if your part of the "group"

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